First Things First: December, 2020


“A Christmas Comma”

By Brad Mercer

“Let’s eat Grandma.” “We’re learning to cut and paste kids!” “Caution pedestrians slippery when wet.” In response to similar very public linguist boo-boos, one writer declares, “Punctuation saves lives!” A comma or two can make all the difference.

Consider the popular Christmas carol, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (Trinity Hymnal). The comma after “Merry” looks odd, but it’s actually in the right place.

Hymnologists are not sure who wrote this carol, but they tell us that it is based on an English melody written in the 18th century. For many of us, the words and music conjure up images of Victorian gentlemen and ladies appropriately enjoying the yuletide, or a large (somewhat tipsy) Englishman, tankard in hand, singing his lungs out. After all, the carol is about happiness and joy, right? Yes and no.

The meanings of words often change over time. Awful used to mean “full of fear and awe.” Naughty meant “nothing,” and “texts” and “tweets” once referred to books and birds! When we hear the word “merry” we understandably think “happy,” but when the carol was written “merry” meant mighty or strong. In the Middle Ages a strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler. Robin Hood’s band of merry men was not a cadre of happy men; they were strong men. So when the English carolers of the Victorian era sang the words “merry gentlemen,” they meant great, or mighty, men. The word “rest” simply meant keep or make.

Now the comma placement makes perfect sense. The original meaning was “God make you strong, gentlemen” or “God keep you mighty, gentlemen.” Once we see that, the entire meaning of the carol suddenly changes. It’s a timely, wonderful word to Christians all over the world.

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
let nothing you dismay,
remember Christ our Savior
was born on Christmas day,
to save us all from Satan’s pow’r
when we were gone astray;

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

And you who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to an open shame by triumphing over them in Him (Colossians 2:13-15).

Be strong in the Lord! Be strong because the coming of Jesus Christ is good news! Be strong because this good news is for all people! Be strong because this good news is for you! Whatever burdens you may carry as a child of God, cast them upon the Lord, because He cares for you.

Have a Mighty Christmas!